ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Toxic Issues

The ship-breaking industry is booming, but official India is only half-concerned about the many hazards.

The Alang ship-breaking yard near Bhavnagar in Gujarat, which is said to employ around 40,000 workers, is notorious for its unsafe working conditions and for dismantling toxicladen ships. The latest example concerns the Platinum II, originally a United States ship but now of unknown ownership, which was to be dismantled at Alang but awaits final clearance even as environmental groups protest and claim it is loaded with the toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and asbestos. (A three-member team from the Central Pollution Control Board, the Union Ministry of Steel and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board has given the ship a clean chit.)

Until the 1970s, ships were broken in the dry docks of the developed countries but the rising costs of maintaining safety standards and strict environmental norms led the shipping companies to Asia. Alang’s attraction is not simply its cheap labour. High tides carry the huge vessels up the beach and lodge them in the sand, making dry docks and jetties unnecessary. The demand by the greens that the shipping companies must be forced by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organisation to clean up the ships before they are sent for dismantling has gone unheeded. Stripping the ships of toxic materials is not impossible. It is claimed that decontamination by up to 90% of the toxic material is possible, but for obvious reasons shipowners prefer to dump the ships in south Asian yards as they are. A Supreme Court order of 14 October 2003 called for ships to be cleaned of toxic materials before their import, but as the protests over Platinum II show, there is no certainty that this is being done on each and every ship.

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